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Two U of T experts to lead new federal research network for Lyme disease

(photo by iStock)

Federal Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor has announced a $4-million investment in the first-ever Pan-Canadian Lyme Disease Research Network, which will bring together researchers from more than 40 universities across the country, as well as patients, public health experts and representatives from communities living with Lyme disease to improve health outcomes for Canadians with the disease.

Taylor has chosen two University of Toronto experts to be part of a three-person team to lead the network, which will also address gaps in prevention, treatment and diagnosis of the tick-borne infection.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected, black-legged tick. A warming climate has coincided with the spread of this insect population across the country and has led to an increase in the incidence rate of infections.

“One of the major challenges with Lyme disease is that it presents unspecific symptoms, making it difficult for us to recognize them as a possible cause of Lyme disease. Further, diagnostic tests for Lyme disease may not detect early stages of infection. As a result, diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease may be delayed,” said Beate Sander, co-scientific director of the new network and an associate professor at U of T’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Sander (pictured left) and Samir Patel, an assistant professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the Faculty of Medicine, will co-lead the network and provide scientific oversight and direction, along with principal investigator Dr. Kieran Moore of Queen’s University.

In recent years, advocacy groups have expressed concern about the lack of information available for patients who feel unwell or have symptoms of Lyme disease but continually test negative. This lack of knowledge and the public health risk associated with the disease has prompted the federal government to develop a framework, which includes the new research network.

“With the increasing number of cases reported each year, we must not underestimate the public health impact of Lyme disease in Canada,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. “The establishment of a Pan-Canadian Research Network on Lyme Disease, and projects funded under the Infectious Diseases and Climate Change Fund, will help advance the science of this disease, and support the development of new tools, information, and resources to help Canadians and communities make informed decisions about their health.”

 In addition to her role as co-scientific director of the network, Sander will co-lead the clinical science and health services research pillar, with Dalhousie University’s Shelley McNeil and Todd Hatchette. Their prime focus will be to use data from patient cohorts and health administrative data to learn about the disease trajectory.

“The patient cohort and bio bank are the foundational pieces for the research network, and will help improve diagnostics, prevention and treatment strategies by identifying things like risk factors for contracting or developing complications from Lyme disease,” said Sander.  

A self-registry of patient cohorts will also be made available for those who have persistent symptoms of Lyme disease, but who may not have received a positive diagnosis.

“It is important for us to include all patients in our cohort as we try to quantify the health and economic burden of disease for Lyme disease patients,” said Sander.

Determining the burden of disease and the impact of its clinical management such as diagnosis and treatment will also help inform future targeted intervention strategies.

“It is important for the public health of all Canadians that we continue to address the growing threat from tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease and find preventative measures to improve health outcomes,” said Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “I am pleased to see there has been a major investment in this area.”

The funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada, is part of the federal government's commitment to support the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.